Mary Ellen Ryder is a former linguistics faculty member and the namesake of the Boise State Linguistics Lab.
Professor Mary Ellen Ryder was a beloved professor of linguistics in Boise State’s English Department from 1988 until her tragic death in August of 2008. In her 20 years at Boise State, Mary Ellen (she was always informal) inspired thousands of students, teaching them the intricacies of how language works and modeling an intense passion for learning—a passion that her former students cite again and again as they talk about the impact she had on their lives. Many of her students became (or already were) teachers and parents, and the insights they learned in her classes and in their informal conversations with her, which were long and often took place at local Moxie Javas, helped them understand the richness of their students’ and children’s language use. She also developed important connections to the Deaf community, with several students becoming Deaf advocates and interpreters. Mary Ellen profoundly affected the lives of her colleagues, fellow linguists, students, and friends, caring about them all as deeply as if they were her own family.
Mary Ellen received her PhD from University of California at San Diego, focusing her doctoral work on noun-noun compounds and the crucial role of context and background knowledge in the interpretation of meanings of such compounds. Her later areas of expertise included psycholinguistics, or the relationship between language and the brain, and stylistics, which uses linguistic analysis to examine literary texts. She was a regular speaker at meetings of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA), even attempting to learn as much Finnish as she could in preparation for a PALA presentation in Finland. However, her primary interest was in getting students excited about what the field of linguistics had to offer, and she could talk about any subfield of linguistics with equal expertise and excitement. Many students over the years changed their emphases to linguistics specifically because they took a class with Mary Ellen and encountered her infectious enthusiasm for the study of language. In response to online requests from the Boise State University newspaper, The Arbiter, and on a Facebook page dedicated to her memory, student after student described their admiration of her as a professor and as a person and also the impact that Mary Ellen had directly on their career choices or their ability to make it to graduate school.
She fought hard to make certain that linguistics survived at Boise State. We hope she would be proud to see that her passion for language reverberates in this space and across the campus and community. Indeed, with the opportunities that the Linguistics Lab provides to students and to members of the community, linguistics is not only surviving but thriving.